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Welcome to South Park

Across the pond, the second half of the 13th season of the iconoclastic cartoon South Park is well under way. And, thanks to a wide range of (yes, probably illegal) streaming websites, UK audiences have also been able to enjoy new episodes covering subjects from this summer's glut of celebrity deaths to America's obsession with bizarrely theatrical wrestling matches.

There was a time when South Park was written off as the foul-mouthed preserve of puerile adolescents. One need only glance at previews for this week's episode (scheduled to air on Friday), which, it seems, will tackle US hysteria about Japanese whale and dolphin hunting, to realise that these days it represents something quite different. Indeed, South Park's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have in recent years been responsible for some of the sharpest social, political and cultural commentary ever to make it on to American television screens -- a more brazen, far more offensive, altogether funnier Daily Show, if you will.

In an article in the New Statesman a couple years ago, the critic and academic Eric Griffiths argued that Parker and Stone's collaborative friendship is one "that future historians will surely regard as defining an era". So, it's about time that uninitiated readers were introduced to three particularly outstanding episodes of the show. Feel free to praise any personal favourites in the comment box below.

Smug Alert (Season 10, Episode 2): The father of one of the main characters in the show buys a hybrid car because he wants to be "part of the solution and not part of the problem". Realising that his new car positions him somewhat "ahead of the curve", he moves his entire family to San Francisco, a city buried under a cloud of "smug", because of all the "self-satisfied garbage" its populace emits into the air.

About Last Night (Season 12, Episode 12): Broadcast less than a day after Barack Obama was declared winner of the 2008 presidential election, and featuring crowds of inebriated Democrats ("Everything's gonna change!") and suicidal Republicans, this episode hinges on the idea that both parties' campaigns were, in fact, hijacked by an Ocean's Eleven-style gang of jewel thieves featuring, among others, smooth-talking Barack, computer-hacking Michelle, and Sarah Palin, the beautiful brains behind the operation. Barack ultimately decides, in true Hollywood fashion, to "give this president thing a try".

The Ring (Season 13, Episode 1): Another of the show's protagonists, Kenny, takes his new girlfriend, Tammy, to a Jonas Brothers performance, where the pair are encouraged to start wearing purity rings. These rings are soon exposed as a highly profitable marketing tactic dreamt up by a potty-mouthed and megalomaniacal Mickey Mouse -- a way of selling sex to young girls without undermining Disney's reputation as a bastion of Christian, family-friendly morality.

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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